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A Masterpiece by Which to Remember Type Designer Hermann Zapf

Hermann Zapf, Calligraphic manuscript of the Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations in French,​ ​English, Spanish, and Russian, Signed and dated Frankfurt am Main, 1960 (courtesy the​ ​Morgan Library & Museum) (click to enlarge)
Hermann Zapf, calligraphic manuscript of the Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations in French,​ ​English, Spanish, and Russian, signed and dated Frankfurt am Main, 1960 (courtesy the​ ​Morgan Library & Museum) (click to enlarge)

In his lifetime, German type designer Hermann Zapf created around 200 typefaces across the world’s languages, from Arabic to Cherokee. His sans-serif 1952 Optima was used to record the names on both the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and the National September 11 Memorial in New York, while his playful pictorial Dingbats paved the way for our digital emoji. Throughout his career he adapted to changing technology, with hot metal type all the way to desktop computing. For example, the calligraphic Zapfino typeface in Mac OS X that automatically adjusts as you type. Zapf died at the age of 96 on June 4, and as a small tribute, Manhattan’s Morgan Library & Museum is exhibiting one of his biggest calligraphic works: the UN Charter Preamble, written in French, English, Spanish, and Russian.

Christine Nelson, Drue Heinz curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan, explained to Hyperallergic that in addition to memorializing Zapf, the display of the preamble marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter itself. “So the Morgan is also showing the manuscript in honor of the anniversary of the UN Charter, which Secretary Ban Ki-moon said ‘symbolizes the hope and aspirations that we can bring the world as it is a little closer to the world as it should be,'” Nelson added. The manuscript went on view June 26, the anniversary of the signing, and will stay up until October 25, which is the weekend coinciding with UN Day, commemorating the treaty going into effect.

The Hermann Zapf UN Charter Preamble installed at the Morgan Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The Hermann Zapf UN Charter Preamble installed at the Morgan Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

The UN Charter Preamble is tucked into an alcove on the staircase between the special exhibition galleries at the Morgan. You can zoom in closer on a digital version of Zapf’s calligraphic preamble online at the Morgan Library, with its precisely sketched commas and letters in elegant sans-serif. The words “We the peoples of the United Nations, to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind” are exactly written with the rest of the preamble text that established the United Nations. Steven Heller wrote at the Atlantic that Zapf considered the work so important “that he always kept a full-scale imitation of it in his studio.”

The Morgan, under Director Fred Adams, was interested in acquiring contemporary calligraphy, and commissioned the piece from Zapf in 1960. Adams, according to Nelson, described Zapf’s work with these words: “If typography is basically two-dimensional architecture, and calligraphy contains elements of both music and poetry, it might be said that none of the arts is alien to Mr. Zapf, though he would never say so himself.”

“The Morgan’s collection is full of extraordinary examples of the printed and handwritten word, and Adams was right to want to ensure that Zapf’s work joined that company,” Nelson stated. “Not only was Zapf a master of graceful hand-lettering; he also embraced the technological changes that emerged during his lifetime as a designer. Zapf’s letterforms are all around us — at such resonant spots as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington — and yet we rarely focus on those shapes and their makers.”

Hermann Zapf, Detail of the calligraphic manuscript of the Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations in French,​ ​English, Spanish, and Russian, Signed and dated Frankfurt am Main, 1960 (courtesy the​ ​Morgan Library & Museum)
Hermann Zapf, detail of the calligraphic manuscript of the Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations in French,​ ​English, Spanish, and Russian, signed and dated Frankfurt am Main, 1960 (courtesy the​ ​Morgan Library & Museum)

Hermann Zapf’s UN Charter Preamble is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through October 25. 

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